The Language of Describing the Complexity of Learning

“Survival of the fittest, in a world that worships development and ‘forward-moving progress’ makes us all lost and small.”

Nora Bateson. 2016.  Small Arcs of Larger Circles

I have been thinking lots recently about the language we use to describe learning and learning processes. We often speak in linear ways of ‘progress, ‘development’ and ‘next steps’. We also speak sometimes as if everything is so simple and and fixed ‘oh it’s process over product… it’s a schema!”  I wonder if this is at all what I see with children. Indeed, Loris Malaguzzi defied describing learning in such progressive and fixed steps when he used the metaphor of a tangled bowl of spaghetti more akin to Deleuze and Guttari’s vision of a rhizome.

Both metaphors see learning as a tangle, with no beginning or end.

I struggle too with terms such as ‘personalised learning’, ‘Individual learning’ even ‘uniqueness’. Not that I believe we are all the same or learn in the same way, No! But rather that it takes away the social and contextual connection to learning, that ability we have to learn together, our interdependencies between each other and the environment. A tree does not grow alone, it is connected via the forest floor to other trees via a vast network of roots and fungi sharing nutrients, energy, and some might say ‘knowledge’ of a kind that helps other trees to live in the forest. We are nature, not just a part and I think more and more about the mechanistic educational language that we use that seemingly separates us from each other and the world.

In these times especially, words like relational, collaboration, mutuality, connection, participation, sociability, togetherness seem more apt descriptors as well as values to hold dear.  The learning I see in young children is not linear or staged, they do not learn in unique silo’s they bounce ideas and thoughts off each other, it’s complicated, multidirectional and relational. Learning is, and is in a relationship to other children, their families, ourselves, friends, the environment, that tree, and everything within it. It’s the interaction that takes place between the parts that enables it to sit as tangled bowl of spaghetti rather than a singular thread of pasta.  So let’s think deeply, widely, broadly, upwardly, inside out and upside down about our ways of describing ‘learning’ so that we can begin to find richer ways and concepts of describing something as beautiful as ‘learning’.

But we must also err on the side of caution too… because in finding new language and concepts we must still remain flexible and open to new learning and not close it down with newly created fixed truths.  We must avoid just creating another set of polarities or binaries than define learning as linear or fixed.  I remember Gunilla Dahlberg talking about this, and saying we must shift from the paradigm of I, I, I, to And, and, and… as in this way we see things from multiple perspectives, all at the same time and thus in new and ever evolving ways.

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Looking for Learning, Seeking Meaning-Making: Fostering meaning-making in a learning experience

img_0610There is an abundance of ideas and activities all over Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook that point to many ‘learning experiences’ and activity set ups for young children and whilst I appreciate the sharing community of educators all wanting to do the best by children, many of these pinned activities are devoid of their learning context, observation and interpretation of children’s active enquiries.

Active enquiries can be both long and short, last a half an hour to a year, they can be enquiries that originate in children’s own interest and can be offered to children as potential interest and engagement. Ideally they are “educative experiences” (1938, Dewey) that connect the learner to the wider world, across time (continuity) and do not separate out learning into tightly defined subject areas. Many of the shared activities on social media are maybe as Dewey describes as “mis-educative”, a learning experience that may have some benefit to the children, for example, it may address a function to manipulate small objects and thus practice fine motor control, but overall lack that connection to bigger ideas and meaning-making. A mis-educative experience is one in which a child has not reflected or thought about and so has obtained nothing for mental growth that is lasting. (Experience & Education, 1938, Dewey).

img_1398Meaning-Making can be defined as a process by which children’ make-sense’ and interpret situations, events, objects, and conversations either alone or with others. It is a process by which children bring what they already know and have experienced together with the current context of learning. “Learning as meaning-making” is an expression that concerns how children are actively engaged in constructing and making sense of the situation – the context, objects, materials and relationships. Therefore the contexts and situations that we create in our classrooms should be rich and generative in possibility for such deep level, educative learning.

In the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, I have seen how they work with big ideas that offer many interpretative possibilities such as birth, the city, the future, that relate to how children may think about these things. They investigate how children form relationships with materials and matter, and with each other, and within the wider communities of their city and the World and in this way the teachers avoid these unconnected, small, segregated examples of activities that constitute much of what is shared on social media. This need not be confined just to those schools in Reggio but can be grown by us all in all our contexts with young children.

project-2016-img_2801-1I was asked recently about my own personal enquiries and questions that I have about children’s learning that help me to plan and observe children in the process of their meaning-making. Below are some of the questions and enquiries that I hold onto and I offer these as alternatives to help us all think about the best ways of being by children’s side.

  •  Does the learning situation/context off opportunity for meaning-making and can the children bring prior knowledge to the current context? What do they already understand?
  • Does it hold a rich context for children to touch, hold, see it in its original context?
    Is the situation/context of learning generative of multiple perspectives and different points of views?
  • Can children discover information and knowledge for themselves rather than being told?
  • Does the learning experience/situation offer potential for continuity and evolvement of ideas over time?
  •  Are there rich and multiple sources of information that you can draw upon?
  • What do you anticipate what may happen in the learning situation/context? (So as to be open to the unexpected and unusual.)
  • What are the strategies and approaches of the children to learn about the subject(s)?
  • How do they use strategies of imagination and fantasy as part of their meaning-making?
  • When moving between languages of expression (the hundred languages of children) how are children re-elaborating their ideas and thinking?
  • How are we supporting the children to discover more about the subject for themselves? 
  • Are our questions generative of further learning, that open up to increased diversity of thinking and ideas – asking how, what if questions rather than why?
  • How do we re-propose to children their ideas and thoughts so as to raise up challenge, further debate, different ideas (diversity)?

It isn’t as easy as browsing pictures online, but with thought and curiosity we can engage with children’s’ active enquiries and generate rich and educative learning situations that foster creativity, critical thinking and imagination of both children and educators.